United Airlines has an astonishing new idea to excite customers

United believes it's far ahead of competitors such as American and has just partnered with Apple. But one idea may especially entice business customers. Perhaps.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Thinking different?

Screenshot by ZDNet

It's hard to avoid United Airlines these days.

It has a strong opinion here, a new idea there and a CEO who's often gracing TV screens with pearls of opportunistic wisdom.

I was mesmerized, therefore, by an interview given by United's CEO Scott Kirby to CNN. Even more mesmerized than by the one he gave CBS just a couple of weeks ago.

Which is quite something.

Speaking of getting through the very difficult Covid period, Kirby channeled his inner Steve Jobs: "We've been different. We're the only big airline, network carrier across the Atlantic that didn't retire a bunch of widebodies."

Bravo, sir. Surely everyone knows that widebodies are more comfortable than the jet-powered bicycle inner-tubes that some airlines adore.

Kirby had only just begun. Touting the fact that the airline has 500 new planes coming in the next five years, he said: "Everyone else left us an opening playing field, I think, to run through to be the biggest and best airline in the world."

Yes, he was talking about United. But please stay to hear how he derides his competitors, such as American and Delta.

"They're worried that business travel and international travel are never coming back," he said as if he has a remarkable spy network.

But let's now espy the revolutionary idea that seems to be at the core of Kirby's confidence, at the heart of his belief that business travelers will crave a trip on one of United's fine planes.

Are you ready?

"The other big bet we've made is that customers care about the quality of the product and customer service," he said.

This is astonishing. This is truly wild. May a feather blow me over and soothe me.

Can this possibly be? Can it be true that United has embraced the sudden realization that people who pay (often a lot of) money for a seat actually want a little customer service? Do they want the experience to be even vaguely pleasing?

In case you're still wondering, Kirby wanted to make it clear: "For far too long, airlines have commoditized the travel experience."

Dare one suggest that one of those airlines was United? (Except it became a little different by dragging a passenger off a plane, with his face bleeding and some teeth missing.)

Still, dare one wonder whether any airline can really, in the current circumstances, suddenly switch on a bigger smile, a more thoughtful eye and, let's dream, a seat that's even vaguely as wide as the person sitting in it?

Well, here's a motivational internal memo just sent by United's senior vice-president of inflight services, John Slater, and obtained by Live and Let's Fly.

It says, in part: "As consumers ourselves, we all appreciate feeling special or recognized for our loyalty. Our premier customers are no exception. Acknowledging our customers' special occasions, milestones and MileagePlus status takes only a moment and keeps these customers loyal to United."

Status is one of the great attractions of business flying. Being made to feel important is, of course, a concomitant.

So, you skeptical-businessperson-wondering-if-your-CFO-will-let-you-go-on-a-business-trip-to-actually-meet-the-customer-or-colleague-you've-worked-with-for-two-years-from-your-respective-living-rooms, are you persuaded? Are you enticed?

Is it, indeed, possible to believe that hard-working check-in staff and flight attendants can focus on recognizing regular customers when they spend their time in fear of the next anti-vax, anti-mask zealot ruining their day and jeopardizing the on-time departure of a flight?

I'll leave you to decide on that while I relatedly tell you that United also just wisely partnered with Apple so that you can import your vaccination verification information from your iPhone's Health app into the United app. Especially useful, perhaps, if your business trip involves foreign climbs.

Perhaps you're wondering, though -- as I confess I was -- whether United would then automatically know at least some passengers' vaccination status, potentially useful if those passengers subsequently appear on a domestic flight.

"No," a United spokeswoman told me firmly. "To protect customers' privacy, the vaccine information from Apple Health is wiped from United's system once a customer finishes their trip. They will need to reupload for any future flights that require vaccination records."

Some companies -- JP Morgan, for example -- have decreed that only vaccinated employees will be allowed to make business trips.

What if United, the first airline to mandate that all its employees be vaccinated, decided to offer flights exclusively for vaccinated customers?

I'm sorry, United. It's just another crazy customer service idea.

I hear you're into that sort of thing these days.

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